The Panther–Wotan line was a defensive line partially built by the German Wehrmacht in 1943 on the Eastern Front. The first part of the name refers to the short northern section between Lake Peipus and the Baltic Sea at Narva.
Adolf Hitler hoped to repeat the success of the World War I Hindenburg Line on the Western Front, which allowed the Germans to shorten their front line and release many troops for operations elsewhere. In this case the Wehrmacht was no longer capable of launching a decisive, strategic offensive against the Red Army, so instead Hitler wanted to force a conclusive draw with the USSR before the Allied armies in the west became a major threat.
With the Panther–Wotan line, Hitler indicated a desire to return to attrition warfare that was prevalent during World War I. Hitler's order to construct the line in August 1943 following the Battle of Kursk and Joseph Goebbels' "total war" speech delivered on 18 February 1943 displays Hitler's abandonment of Blitzkrieg, and his tacit admission that the Wehrmacht was no longer capable of launching large scale offensive operations against the Red Army. Hitler hoped to "bleed" the Red Army against the line in a manner similar to trench warfare seen on the Western Front. He hoped the USSR, having suffered appalling casualties during 1941–1942 due to successful Wehrmacht Blitzkrieg assaults, would suffer a similar fate against a strong Wehrmacht defensive line. The line however became a complete failure.
The majority of the line ran along the Dnieper River, from just west of Smolensk to the Black Sea. Hitler proclaimed to his generals in September 1943 that the Dnieper defensive line was to be the last barrier against Bolshevism. The line left the banks of the Dnieper only where another major tributary offered similar defensive capabilities, and in the south, where the Dnieper curved (western Dnipropetrovsk Oblast) to the west and did not offer protection to the Crimea's Isthmus of Perekop link with the mainland. In the north, the line was to have been constructed roughly from Vitebsk to Pskov, where it then followed the west bank of Lake Peipus, and its river delta to the Baltic Sea at Narva.
When the order was signed for its construction on 11 August 1943, the Wehrmacht armies held positions hundreds of kilometers to the east of the proposed defensive line, generally along the Donets River in the south and along a line roughly from Smolensk to Leningrad in the north. Retreating to the line would give up considerable Soviet territory, including major cities such as Smolensk and Kharkiv, which had only recently been recaptured in the Kharkov offensive operation, as well as smaller cities including Kholm, Novgorod, Oryol and Bryansk. In addition, the Siege of Leningrad would have to be abandoned.
Confidence in the effectiveness of the line was poor inside Army Group North, with its commander, General Küchler, refusing to refer to the line by its name, fearing it would instill false hope amongst his troops in its strength. The line was only partially completed when a general withdrawal was ordered on 15 September 1943 and Manstein's Heeresgruppe Süd had commenced to fall back on it. The Red Army immediately attempted to break the line to deny OKH time to plan a long term defence, launching the Lower Dnieper strategic offensive operation (26 September 1943 – 20 December 1943) along a 300 km front. The line was particularly weak in the area just north of the Black Sea, which allowed the Southern Front to breach it with relative ease, thereby cutting off the German 17th Army on the Crimean Peninsula from its land retreat route. The Red Army casualties were relatively acceptable at 173,201 unrecoverable and 581,191 sick and wounded (total 754,392). By 1 December, the entire line had been broken from Velikiye Luki in the north to the Black Sea in the south, with the line north of Velikiye Luki ignored by Stavka planners on the assumption that it would be abandoned under the threat of encirclement.
The only part of the line to remain in Wehrmacht possession after 1943 was the extreme northern section, the Panther line between Lake Peipus and the Baltic Sea at Narva. This small portion of the line was assaulted during the Battle of Narva, with the Baltic States and the Gulf of Finland remaining in German hands well into 1944.
- Kaufmann, J.E.; H.W. Kaufmann (2003). Fortress Third Reich. DA Capo Press. p. 282.
- p.31, Baxter
- see Krivosheev in sources which pages?